Research on STEM Education: Awarding Winning Innovative Physics Education Research and Practice

A 2014 recipient of the prestigious Robert A. Millikan Medal awarded by the American Association of Physics Teachers for her career contributions to the field of physics education, Dr. Eugenia Etkina is a pioneer in the field of physics education. Early in her career, while being a high school physics teacher, she envisioned a new way to teach physics that involved engaging students in the activities that mirror the work of physicists while they are learning physics from the very first day. She had her students observe phenomena and conduct experiments, collect data, and come up with explanations. They designed new experiments to test their explanations and made predictions of their outcomes using the explanations under the tests. If the outcome matched the prediction, they would run more tests, if the outcome did not match, the explanation was rejected. Once they decided that the explanation was not rejected, they would proceed with applications. Dr. Etkina studied what her students learned, how they learned it, and how they changed over time. This work led to the creation of the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) – a new way to teach physics.


“I really want to change how people see physics and what they think it means to learn it,” said Dr. Etkina. “Teaching physics with ISLE helps students develop reasoning abilities – the abilities to collect and analyze data, pose questions, develop, test, reject models and explanations, and many others including the abilities to communicate and to evaluate. Having solid reasoning abilities is an essential life skill necessary to one’s success.”

For the past 15 years, Dr. Etkina has been mentoring a community of over 150 physics teachers who graduated from her program. The teachers meet together at Rutgers once a month to hone their physics and teaching skills.  Alumni from her program are designing curriculum for NASA, have sent experiments to the international space station, and designed online physics games, which have been played by millions across the globe.

Her physics education program has been consistently recognized nationally by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition’s “The 5+ Club”, which recognizes institutions that graduate 5 or more physics teachers in a given year. The great majority of institutions graduate fewer than two physics teachers a year, and the most common number of graduates is zero. Graduating 5 or more physics teachers a year is a significant achievement, helping to address the severe national shortage of high school physics teachers.

Dr. Etkina’s present work has been around examining the effectiveness of videos of physics experiments in helping students learn physics. “Physics experiments are a regular component of learning physics. However, not all schools have the funding to be able to buy the equipment necessary to conduct experiments,” stated Dr. Etkina. “Thus, we created arrays of videos of different experiments to help recreate the atmosphere for the students as if they are designing the experiments themselves. They can change various parameters in these arrays and decide what data to collect. We have been studying how the students think when they use these videoed experiments as opposed to real ones.”

One of the preliminary findings was that students do not enjoy working with the videos as much as they enjoy actually conducting the experiments themselves. However, they perform about the same on exams regardless of whether they learned through working with videoed experiments, varying the parameters, and analyzing data there or through designing and interpreting the data from real experiments.

“There is a great need for accessibility that the videos help with and there are many advantages as well such as the ability to slow down and view the phenomenon as it is occurring – you can’t do that with live experiments,” said Dr. Etkina. “However, there are disadvantages too. An end result may be that students who learn physics via working with videoed experiment might grow up to like physics less than those who do the real experiments. We are trying to understand when it is useful and when not to use videoed experiments to help students learn physics.”

Dr. Etkina’s vision for her future work is to collaborate with chemistry and biology educators to create curriculum materials in their subjects in the spirit of ISLE. “I want to change the world by changing the way we teach sciences and then study how teachers change once they adopt these new techniques.”

“Rutgers GSE has been an amazing place for me in terms of support for all my ideas and endeavors,” said Dr. Etkina. “The way that I prepare physics high school physics teachers is virtually unheard of and I am infinitely grateful to all the GSE Deans and my department chairs over the years who have supported my vision for an innovative way to teach physics and to prepare physics teachers.”